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Scientists find bizarre mushroom, name it after “SpongeBob”

June 15, 2011
Courtesy of San Francisco State University
and World Science staff

What lives in the rain­for­est, un­der a tree? Spon­gi­for­ma square­pant­sii, a new spe­cies of mush­room al­most as odd as the car­toon char­ac­ter sci­en­tists named it af­ter.

“It’s just like a sponge with these big hol­low holes,” said San Fran­cis­co State Un­ivers­ity bi­ol­o­gist Den­nis Des­jardin. “When it’s wet and moist and fresh, you can wring wa­ter out of it and it will spring back to its orig­i­nal size. Most mush­rooms don’t do that.”

Spongiforma squarepantsii seen in cross-sec­tion and whole next to a centi­met­er ruler. (Cre­dit: Tom Bruns, U.C. Berk­eley)


Its dis­cov­ery in the forests of Bor­ne­o sug­gests that even some of the most char­is­mat­ic char­ac­ters in the fun­gal king­dom are yet to be iden­ti­fied, he added. Shaped like a sea sponge, it was found in 2010 in the Lam­bir Hills in Sa­ra­wak, Ma­lay­sia. It’s bright or­ange and smells “vaguely fru­ity or strongly musty,” ac­cord­ing to a de­scrip­tion by Des­jardin and col­leagues pub­lished in the re­search jour­nal My­colo­gia.

Un­der a scan­ning elec­tron mi­cro­scope, the or­gan­is­m’s spore-producing ar­ea looks like a seafloor car­peted in tube sponges, fur­ther per­suad­ing the dis­cov­er­ers to name it af­ter the Sponge­Bob SquarePants car­toon char­ac­ter. (The Latin moniker act­ual­ly means “Sponge Form of Square­Pants.”)

The new spe­cies is one of only two in its cat­e­go­ry, the ge­nus Spon­gi­forma. The oth­er lives in cen­tral Thai­land, and dif­fers in col­or and smell. But close ex­amina­t­ion and ge­net­ic anal­y­sis re­vealed that the two were rel­a­tives liv­ing thou­sands of miles apart, said Des­jardin. And both are re­lat­ed to a group that in­cludes the tasty porcini mush­rooms.

Spon­gi­forma’s an­ces­tors had the fa­mil­iar cap-and-stem form com­mon among mush­rooms, but lost this over time—also a com­mon oc­cur­rence in fun­gi, Des­jardin said. The cap and stem, he ex­plained, is an el­e­gant ev­o­lu­tion­ary so­lu­tion, but only one pos­si­ble so­lu­tion, to a fun­gal prob­lem. The stem lifts the fun­gus’ re­pro­duc­tive spores, the mush­roomy equiv­a­lent of seeds, off the ground so that they can spread more eas­i­ly, while the cap keeps them suitably moist in their lofty but ex­posed po­si­tion.

In its hu­mid home, Spon­gi­for­ma has tak­en a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to keep­ing its spores wet. “It’s be­come ge­lat­i­nous or rub­bery,” Des­jardin said. It can “re­vive very quickly if it dries out, by ab­sorb­ing very small amounts of mois­ture from the air.”

S. squarepantsii now has anoth­er claim to fame: It joins the five per­cent of spe­cies in the vast and di­verse King­dom Fun­gi that have been for­mally named. Re­search­ers es­ti­mate that there may be an­y­where from 1.5 to 3 mil­lion fun­gal spe­cies. “Most of these are very cryp­tic, molds and lit­tle things, most of them are not mush­rooms,” Des­jardin said. But even mush­rooms—which are sort of like the big game of the fun­gal world—are mostly un­known.

“We go to un­der­ex­plored forests around the world, and we spend months at a time col­lect­ing all the mush­rooms and fo­cus­ing on var­i­ous groups,” Des­jardin said. “And when we do that type of work, on av­er­age, an­y­where from 25 per­cent to 30 per­cent of the spe­cies are new to sci­ence.”

Des­jardin and his col­league Don Hemmes of the Un­ivers­ity of Ha­waii at Hi­lo plan to de­scribe five new white-spored spe­cies of mush­rooms from the na­tive moun­tain forests of Ha­waii in an up­com­ing is­sue of My­colo­gia. The Ha­wai­ian spe­cies are among the di­verse set of or­gan­isms found on the is­lands and no­where else in the world. Des­jardin and his col­leagues are rac­ing to disco­ver and study the is­lands’ fun­gi be­fore na­tive forests suc­cumb to ag­ri­cul­ture and graz­ing.

“We don’t know what’s there, and that keeps us from truly un­der­stand­ing how these habi­tats func­tion,” Des­jardin said. “But we think that all this di­vers­ity is nec­es­sary to make the forests work the way they’re sup­posed to.”


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What lives in the rainforest, under a tree? Spongiforma squarepantsii, a new species of mushroom almost as odd as the cartoon character scientists named it after. “It’s just like a sponge with these big hollow holes,” said San Francisco State University biologist Dennis Desjardin. “When it’s wet and moist and fresh, you can wring water out of it and it will spring back to its original size. Most mushrooms don’t do that.” Its discovery in the forests of Borneo suggests that even some of the most charismatic characters in the fungal kingdom are yet to be identified, he added. Shaped like a sea sponge, it was found in 2010 in the Lambir Hills in Sarawak, Malaysia. It’s bright orange and smells “vaguely fruity or strongly musty,” according to a description by Desjardin and colleagues published in the research journal Mycologia. Under a scanning electron microscope, the organism’s spore-producing area looks like a seafloor carpeted in tube sponges, further persuading the discoverers to name it after the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon character. The new species is one of only two in its category, the genus Spongiforma. The other lives in central Thailand, and differs in color and smell. But close examination and genetic analysis revealed that the two were relatives living thousands of miles apart, said Desjardin. And both are related to a group that includes the tasty porcini mushrooms. Spongiforma’s ancestors had the familiar cap-and-stem form common among mushrooms, but lost this over time—a common occurrence in fungi, Desjardin said. The cap and stem, he explained, is an elegant evolutionary solution, but only one possible solution, to a fungal problem. The stem lifts the fungus’ reproductive spores, the mushroomy equivalent of seeds, off the ground so that they can spread more easily, while the cap keeps them suitably moist in their lofty but exposed position. In its humid home, Spongiforma has taken a different approach to keeping its spores wet. “It’s become gelatinous or rubbery,” Desjardin said. It can “revive very quickly if it dries out, by absorbing very small amounts of moisture from the air.” S. squarepantsii now has another claim to fame: It joins the five percent of species in the vast and diverse Kingdom Fungi that have been formally named. Researchers estimate that there may be anywhere from 1.5 to 3 million fungal species. “Most of these are very cryptic, molds and little things, most of them are not mushrooms,” Desjardin said. But even mushrooms—which are sort of like the big game of the fungal world—are mostly unknown. “We go to underexplored forests around the world, and we spend months at a time collecting all the mushrooms and focusing on various groups,” Desjardin said. “And when we do that type of work, on average, anywhere from 25 percent to 30 percent of the species are new to science.” Desjardin and his colleague Don Hemmes of the University of Hawaii at Hilo plan to describe five new white-spored species of mushrooms from the native mountain forests of Hawaii in an upcoming issue of Mycologia. The Hawaiian species are among the diverse set of organisms found on the islands and nowhere else in the world. Desjardin and his colleagues are racing to discover and study the islands’ fungi before native forests succumb to agriculture and grazing. “We don’t know what’s there, and that keeps us from truly understanding how these habitats function,” Desjardin said. “But we think that all this diversity is necessary to make the forests work the way they’re supposed to.”